One of the recurring questions asked of ambitious filmmakers is just how far can you go on your path while trying to have your cake and eat it too. After his well-regarded documentary Anvil!, British director Sacha Gervasi stumbles right at the outset with his debut fiction feature, an undeniably enjoyable but somewhat tawdry take on the making of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, using the biographical monograph by Stephen Rebello as a starting point to develop a study about the ultimate importance of this "nice, clean, nasty piece of work" on the director's career.

     John J. McLaughlin's script posits Psycho as a deliberate departure from Mr. Hitchcock's comfort zone, precisely engineered to deploy all his tools of the trade in order to prove he could remain a relevant filmmaker at a time when he was being seen as an entertainment impresario past his best days, but creating at the same time a mid-life crisis of insecurity that sees him nearly lose the farm he bet on the film. Hitchcock touches on many of the known foibles of the director's oft-explored and oft-quoted biography, putting first and foremost his desire to mold his female stars to exacting standards and his dependance on long-suffering wife and creative accomplice, Alma Reville.

     All fine and dandy, but despite the impeccable production there is really something ultimately intrusive about this humanization of the artist, a look under the surface that asks far too many questions than it has any right to and answers them in strictly melodramatic ways - suggesting "there's always a great woman behind a great man", and that Hitchcock wasn't able to pull off his magic without the presence of his wife. Anthony Hopkins, as Hitchcock, and Helen Mirren, as Alma, give their best and a very good best it is as well, despite the obvious lack of physical resemblance to the real-life models. Mr. Hopkins is very good as the invariably British-reserved, vulnerability-hiding man, Ms. Mirren is great as the stoic, pragmatic wife, and their performances aren't merely mere impersonations of the originals (as indeed isn't Scarlett Johansson's as a surprising Janet Leigh).

     But there's a sense that it's ultimately a wasted effort in trying to humanize what would otherwise essentially be a movie-of-the-week dramatization about the "lifestyles of the rich and famous", unhelped by the constant cheap cinephile winks at Hitchcock's cameos or TV series intros, or by the somewhat clumsy attempt at using Ed Gein, the true-life inspiration for Robert Bloch's original novel, as a "phantom" presence throughout the shooting. None of this is sacrilegial, in and of itself - there's always a natural curiosity about the backstory of popular classics - but there's a sense that, unlike the original Psycho, Hitchcock merely shines light into corners that weren't truly that dark to begin with. Mr. Gervasi seemed as if he wanted to please both film buffs and the casual filmgoer with his tale, but the end result is really too pedestrian for connoisseurs and too anecdotal for novices, leaving you to wonder whom exactly this was made for.

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel, Michael Stuhlbarg, James d'Arcy, Michael Wincott, Kurtwood Smith, Richard Portnow

Director: Sacha Gervasi
Screenplay: John J. McLaughlin, based on the book by Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho
Cinematography: Jeff Cronenweth (colour, widescreen)
Music: Danny Elfman
Designer: Judy Becker
Costumes: Julie Weiss
Editor: Pamela Martin
Make-up: Howard Berger, Gregory Nicotero
Producers: Ivan Reitman, Tom Pollock, Joe Medjuck, Tom Thayer, Alan Barnette (Fox Searchlight Pictures, The Montecito Picture Company and Barnette/Thayer Productions in association with Cold Spring Pictures, Dune Entertainment, Ingenious Media and Big Screen Productions)
USA/United Kingdom, 2012, 98 minutes

Screened: distributor advance private screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), December 21st 2012.


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